June 12: Vali-Hi Drive-In, Lake Elmo MN

It’s Day 163 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. There are long drives and short drives, but this one was in between. It took a little over two hours to get from Long Prairie MN to the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo, just east of St. Paul.

I’m not sure what year the Vali-Hi opened; I couldn’t find a good answer anywhere on the web. My old guidebook references suggest it was before 1969, probably in the middle of the decade. Whoever started it gave way by 1984 to Bob O’Neill, still the owner when he was the subject of a 2013 article in the Star-Tribune.

The article was prompted by the Vali-Hi’s then-recent conversion to digital projection. “Digital has made life a lot easier, but you really miss being in a projection booth and hearing the film running,” O’Neill said.

One of the Vali-Hi signatures, along with a nifty arcade and a black and white photo booth, is that it shows triple features every night. Just eight days from the summer solstice, that means this northern drive-in starts around 9:30, so a patron who concluded this week’s program (run time 348 total minutes) wouldn’t drive out until after 3 in the morning.

Fortunately, in the interest of waking up in time for free continental breakfasts wherever I stay, I always quit after the first movie. (It amuses me that many drive-ins’ FAQ pages include “Am I allowed to leave after just one movie?”) On my 11th consecutive night watching a movie (a new personal high), I didn’t mind watching Wonder Woman for a third time.

Miles Today / Total:  140 / 21307 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Wonder Woman / 79

Nearby Restaurant: I love a good German restaurant, so I was a little confused when I went to Gorman’s Restaurant in Lake Elmo. They gave me a funny look when I asked about a Schweinshaxe, so instead I chose one of my other favorites – breakfast in the middle of the day. I had a stack of wheatcakes and some biscuits and gravy, which together are probably just about as healthy as that pig knuckle.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Although there is a Holiday Inn in Lake Elmo’s city limits, the Holiday Inn Express just south of the city border in Woodbury was actually closer. This place was very nice, with a fridge in my room and plenty of hot options in the busy breakfast area the next morning.

Only in Lake Elmo: A few miles away in North St. Paul, you’ll find 20 tons of concrete stucco shaped into the World’s Largest Stucco Snowman. According to the North St. Paul web site, former barber Lloyd Koesling came back from a visit to Disneyland with a suggestion for the city council and Jaycees, who would traditionally build a snowman as part of the annual snow Frolics Festival using the excess snow from plowing. Long story short, construction was completed in 1974. On the day in 2002 when Koesling passed away, the snowman wore a somber black band on his arm.

Next stop: Stardust Twin Drive-In Theater, Chetek WI.

June 11: Long Drive-In Theatre, Long Prairie MN

It’s Day 162 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Thank goodness the drives are getting shorter. It took me less than an hour and a half to get from Litchfield MN to the Long Drive-In Theatre in Long Prairie.

The Long is the best drive-in in Minnesota. At least that’s how the viewers of WCCO (Minneapolis’ News Leader) voted in 2014, resulting in the YouTube video embedded above.

Let me try to build the history of this place through several sources. The Echo Press of Alexandria MN wrote that the Long’s first owner, Tillie Smith started the theater in 1956 and lived in an apartment in the back room of the concessions building. The Morrison County Record wrote that “The theater changed hands a few times until it landed with Cliff and Laurel Meier in 1985.” According to a 2014 story in the Dairyland Peach, The Meiers sold it to their daughter Michelle Claseman and her family in 2013. That’s when they switched to digital projection. There’s room for about 300-350 cars here.

As you would expect, even a small-town drive-in must have had some lean times during the 80s and 90s. “I can remember my parents running a movie for five cars,” Michelle said. “They both had full-time jobs but they just loved to do it. Through the slow years, they ran at cost.”

Just last fall, the Echo Press wrote, “Nearly everything that came with Long Drive-In Theatre in 1956 still operates today, including Smith’s apartment appliances, outdoor speakers, the popcorn maker and the (film) projector, which is used to play retro trailers during Classic Car Night.”

Although Alien: Covenant had been out for a while, I hadn’t seen it before this night. It’s always great to get a fresh movie. I also enjoyed snacking on the “Nasty Nachos” topped with pulled pork, cheese sauce, and sour cream. Top that off with a “California Dream” (what I think of as a Dreamsicle float with orange soda), and it was a great Sunday night.

Miles Today / Total:  71 / 21167 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Alien: Covenant / 78

Nearby Restaurant: The Countryside Restaurant has breakfast all day, which I love, and great desserts, which I love possibly even more. In this case, I was able to get some peach pecan pancakes (with bacon and eggs for a little protein), then top it off with a slice of key lime pie. Yum!

Where I Virtually Stayed: Yeesh! Google and TripAdvisor list two hotels for Long Prairie (others are 17 miles away), and the reviews on one included the titles “lousy hotel”, “terrible”, and “Unbelievable!” So I chose the other, the Super 8. The staff was friendly, and my jacuzzi suite had a mini-fridge and microwave. There was a little bit of something for breakfast, and I was on my way to start a new week.

Only in Long Prairie: At Veterans Memorial Park, Army Reservist Kimberly Lawler built a mural / sculpture combination that’s five stories high. One is topped by the famous flag raising scene at Mt. Suribachi. The mural details the battle of Iwo Jima, the battlefield cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France and also includes a tribute to women in the military. The park also includes a Sherman tank and a statue of liberty replica.

Next stop: Vali-Hi Drive-In, Lake Elmo MN.

June 10: Starlite Drive-In, Litchfield MN

It’s Day 161 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I left the city of Elko New Market MN, looped around Minneapolis, and within two hours of driving landed at the Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield MN.

According to the West Central Tribune of Willmar MN, the Starlite was built by brothers Fred and Lloyd Schnee in 1956. The Schnees sold the drive-in to the Lutz family in 1976, but the Starlite closed in 1981.

Tim Eiler bought the decaying property in 1997 and began slowly restoring it in his spare time while adding more screens. He was up to five screens (though only two digital projectors) when an ankle injury in 2105 led him to sell the Starlite to David Quincer, who told the Wadena Pioneer Journal, “We’ll likely run the two digital screens and see from there.” Sure enough, the Starlite has only two active screens today.

I added a nice video profile of Eiler and the Starlite made in 2014 by AM 1240 WJON.

This was the first multi-screen drive-in I’d seen in a few days, and it was nice to have a choice. I didn’t really want to see the latest Pirates installment yet again, so it was great to have Captain Underpants as an alternative.

Miles Today / Total:  95 / 21096 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Captain Underpants / 77

Nearby Restaurant: The Parkview Grille is small, but it has a patio that’s nice this time of year. It’s the kind of place that serves bacon-wrapped shrimp – not a diner, but very interesting all the same. It’s good to eat fish now and then (gotta keep that balanced diet), so I splurged on the walleye fillet, and it was great.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Once upon a time, decades ago, I had a really nice stay at a Knights Inn. That’s why I decided to give the Knights Inn in Litchfield a try, even though the AmericInn was ranked higher by TripAdvisor. There were some smokers around the common areas, sure, but I’m used to Las Vegas casinos, so this was nothing. My room was clean and had a mini-fridge. With the money I saved, I supplemented the spartan continental breakfast by heading next door to the McDonalds.

Only in Litchfield: Just down the road in Darwin, the town famous for “The World’s Largest Twine Ball Made By One Man.” If you stop by the Darwin Twine Ball Museum, you correctly expect to see the result of Francis Johnson’s 29-year effort, but you can also stand in the presence of “The World’s Largest Handcarved Multiple Pliers.” And every second Saturday in August, the entire town celebrates Twine Ball Days.

Next stop: Long Drive-In Theatre, Long Prairie MN.